Teaching Opinion

Pedagogy of the Empowered

By Harry C. Boyte — November 23, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

In your last blog, you discuss protests against Trump as examples of citizen action, expressing frustration that many protestors may not have voted, our of a concern concern for building a progressive political movement.

But civic agency -- agency in civic terms -- is neither activism nor partisanship. Civic agency is like the Greek definition of “democracy.” As Josiah Ober, the classical scholar, has shown, for the Greeks democracy did not mean voting. It meant the “collective strength and ability” to act in the public world.

Developing civic agency is central to democracy schools. It is “pedagogy of the empowered.”

Such pedagogy teaches about oppressive structures and other power dynamics. But it is not “pedagogy of the oppressed.” It develops identities of being powerful, transforming students’ sense of powerlessness and victimhood. This involves democratic decision making and much more.

As you’ve said, we’re not born with habits of decision making. We’re also not born with “collective strength to act.”

Public Achievement, the youth civic empowerment initiative we began in 1991 to bring the empowering pedagogy of the civil rights movement to today’s young people, has taught a lot about a pedagogy of the empowered.

It involves “organizing,” different than “mobilizing” (though organizing has mobilizing moments).

PA’s pedagogy builds working relationships with people outside friendship group or families, even with people whose views on certain issues students may hate. It involves learning to understand the interests, passions, and complexity of other people. As I learned in the civil rights movement when I organized poor whites in Durham, North Carolina, people may be racially prejudiced and at the same time concerned about domestic violence, or housing, or the need for better schools. These interests have potential to create common ground across racial divides.

Civic agency involves skills of the “citizen teacher” you described- understanding the history and culture of a school and surrounding communities, how to deal with conflict in constructive ways, power relationships in the school and also beyond the school.

Civic agency is about culture, not simply individual skills and habits. Schools can develop cultures of collective strength, including norms of accountability, reciprocity, argument, and discussion, and teaching that engages the interests and passions of students. We saw this in St. Bernard’s elementary school in St. Paul, the incubator school for Public Achievement.

Its relatively open, public, productive culture was what Jane Addams was getting at in describing Hull House, the Chicago settlement which Gioia Diliberto describes in A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams. John Dewey took Hull House as the model for schools.

Addams stressed the need for ideological diversity: “The Settlement recognizes the need of cooperation, both with the radical and the conservative, and . . . cannot limit its friends to any one political party or economic school,” she said. Hull House promoted “a culture which will not set its possessor aside in a class with others like himself, but which will . . . connect him with all sorts of people by his ability to understand them as well as by his power to supplement their present surroundings.”

Public Achievement has similarities.

I thought of these when I interviewed Elaina Verveer, a long-time leader in Colorado Public Achievement. When she learned about PA she liked the idea that young people can learn skills and habits of making constructive change. In PA, children and teens work together as a team on public issues they choose, coached by young adults, often college students. They practice what we call “everyday” or “citizen” politics, co-creating solutions to problems, as well as co-creating their communities and the democracy.

Elaina developed a year-long practicum course at the University of Colorado Boulder, focused on PA’s curriculum, practices and theory. Over the years the course trained more than 500 college students to work as what we call coaches with teams of younger people in area schools.

Elaina has had many experiences of seeing young people of diverse racial and income backgrounds work across differences to take effective action on issues, from immigration to homelessness. In the process they regularly surpassed the expectations of others - even, at times, herself - by negotiating bureaucratic hurdles, building partnerships with diverse groups, and deliberating. Many are changed by the experience, developing new confidence, public skills, and public voice.

Like Jane Addams, Elaina saw the purpose of educational pedagogy as “freeing the powers” of students. She became convinced of “the need for political range.” “Protest politics perpetuates the status quo,” she said. “The only way we can solve our salient social issues is when we work in concert with each other.”

PA experiences changed her views of democracy, from focus on elections and politicians to focus on the work of all citizens. “I often say to young people, ‘Do you really think you can rely on a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton to solve your problems?’” she described. “‘Guess what, it’s not going to happen. We need to collectively find solutions to our toughest projects.’” She stressed that politicians are partners - not fixers or saviors.

Elections (and goverment policies) can advance collective empowerment of “we the people” -- or harm it.

That was the view of our nation’s founders, despite their blind spots and prejudices. They understood certain aspects of democracy better than Americans do today. As the Preamble to the Constitution puts it, “we the people” created government as an instrument of our collective work.

Today, people have forgotten who is in charge. How can schools help citizens to remember that “we the people” are in charge?


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